Letter from TOKYO, GERHARD RICHTER New Overpainted Photographs
On ViewWako Works Of Art
February 5 – March 6, 2010
I didn’t make my most recent trip to Tokyo to see or write about a Gerhard Richter exhibition. It was a bonus, icing on the cake, if you will, that proved to me how important it is to take myself on occasion out of my comfort zone, especially when it comes to looking at the work of an artist who has changed art and has been heavily scrutinized for it. And since I couldn’t even find the time at the end of last year to make a quick trip to New York to see his show of major paintings at Marian Goodman, why not enjoy the absurdity of taking on his work after a 13-and-a-half-hour flight from Chicago? After all, I’ve probably already become all too comfortable with his authoritatively diverse room in the Art Institute’s new Modern Wing, which fidgets stubbornly next to Ellsworth Kelly’s (unruffled, of course). And the fact that Richter’s Tokyo show was to be a selection of his small overpainted photographs would at the very least be a change of pace, if not value.
Tokyo, of course, is an ideal place to experience exquisitely packaged miniature moments, and Richter’s exhibition fell right into place. Comprised of 28 similarly sized works, they began to work their magic even from the street. Come to think of it, there is something to be said for standing outside while looking inside in relation to how these particular Richters operate. The conversation between distance and approach that (for me at least) had always taken place only after entering a room of Richter’s works was modified; I’m confident I would have recognized what I was seeing as his, even from a significant distance despite the intense combination of visual overload that is Tokyo, but I would say that my subsequent refocusing once inside was reinforced by the straightforward dialectical makeup of the works themselves. The photographs are really snapshots, taken by Richter and heavily reliant upon the tropes of family and/or vacation: children playing in the grass, sunsets at the beach, a dog, etc. None of them escape an intervention of paint, but it’s too easy (and not accurate) to see this as defacement or obliteration. Rather I found myself mesmerized by the tremendous diversity of outsized painterly effects in such limited space: for example, “20.6.05” (the titles also indicate dates) overlays a marbled curtain of white and verdigris oil paint over the top half of a horizontal view of an unidentifiable family and a dog, breaking off into a few stray broken “branches” of oil falling down the face of the picture. The paint looks as if it were laid and pulled off, as it does in Richter’s relatively gigantic combed abstract paintings—it’s shocking how not fussy it is, even when his tiny strokes become “stabs” of sharp and bright orange paint on top of such scenes as power lines against a stormy sky (“2.4.08”) or a rail station (“1.4.08”). Other works—like “28.2.08” or “10.3.08”—rely upon the puckering effect of globs of lacquer to draw us away from the seduction of, for example, a too-perfectly exotic seascape, unapologetically rubbing our face in the attraction and repulsion of paint.
Eight of the works, collectively called “Grauwald,” pull and / or drag thinned yet still opaque gray paint over close-ups of trees, cut logs, and the like. While embodying the classic Richter mode of cancellation, the paint cumulatively mimics an effect more common in photography, a dematerialization (it’s almost like smoke) that complicates the subtle materiality that does remain, despite the transformative capabilities of the overall “look.” I’m convinced that the absolute up-close-ness required to examine all of the myriad effects in these concentrated works is very much on Richter’s mind: the familiarity of a snapshot implies intimacy while the scene can suggest somewhere far away (again, being in Tokyo made this extra apparent), the oftentimes absurd tactility of paint can be at our fingertips while creating a (dysfunctional) relationship between flatness and space, not to mention image and reality.
I think in the end it was more important for me to see this exhibition than the last one in New York. I do have the catalogue from that show, and it’s no surprise that Benjamin H.D. Buchloh is still working the “last painting” angle in his essay (in this particular exegesis, they’re now “the last paintings before the last”). On the other hand, to me Richter’s overpainted photographs suggest that there will always be another painting, then another, and so on, functioning not, as I would have thought, as merely souvenirs from, in this case, a fantastic trip, but rather as little moments that help us perpetually renegotiate where we are in the world, not to mention our heads.